Monthly Archives: May 2015

Total Recall (1990)


*. Released in 1990, but you can still feel the suck of the ’80s in your eyeballs. So let’s return to the future that was.
*. Check out all that product placement. Pepsi may have been the worst historical offenders when it came to this, and they’re all over the place here. Other prominently displayed logos include Coca-Cola, Coors Beer, Miller Lite, Sony, Fuji Film, Best Western, and USA Today (oh-so-cleverly repackaged as Mars Today).
*. Sticking with the ’80s dance-party theme, glory in the nightmare that was big hair, and the girl-band music video clothes. Even a glistening Sharon Stone can’t quite make that leotard outfit work (though she rocks her silver power suit). Oh well. Nothing dates like sexy.
*. Still, I find this an intensely watchable movie — even more so than the 2012 remake, for all its even sexier women and more up-to-date effects. Sure it’s just one long chase scene, but it works.
*. Let’s also return to the day when the terrorists — and these aren’t just rebels like in Star Wars, but honest-to-goodness bomb throwers — were the good guys. See also: Brazil.


*. Michael Ironside and Sharon Stone. Damn. There’s an odd couple. And yet I buy it. Both are decent actors in the right parts, and here they are well cast as a matching pair of cool psychos.
*. Ironside is, of course, bald. Is this one of the biggest taboos in Hollywood? Some years ago the media critic Neil Postman observed that there could never be a bald president. He just wouldn’t be able to sell. Hence the frequent references to the “network hair” of candidates (meaning a style of hair that can sometimes look pretty silly). But the same prejudice holds true in the film business. How many bald leading men have there been? Off the top of my head I think of Bruce Willis, but he usually has it cut down to stubble anyway. As a bald man I find this disappointing. So congratulations to Ironside, who may be a heel but at least gets a hot girlfriend.


*. The script went through many revisions (over 40 drafts before Verhoeven even got a look at it). It wasn’t originally imagined as an Arnold vehicle. At one point Richard Dreyfuss was considered, with the character of Quaid being an accountant (as he is in the original Philip K. Dick story).
*. It had a very big budget, but looks a bit tacky today. Especially Venusville, which might be a set from the original Star Trek series. On the other hand, it was one of the last big-budget SF films to not use CGI, and I think the blue-screen work, miniatures, and matte paintings for the Martian landscapes and alien reactor sequence came out well.
*. I think of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting as being sort of like a dog’s. His limited range of facial expressions can show thoughtfulness, or what might be thoughtfulness, anger, confusion, exuberance . . . and that’s about it.


*. When the bad guys are shooting at the hologram of Quaid, why don’t their bullets go through it and hit the guys firing on the other side? That’s what happens later in the scene when Melina uses the device.
*. Personally, I think it most likely that the whole thing is in fact the implanted memory of an adventure, but you could go either way. Of course, you want it all to be real because that’s what you paid your money for. The audience is in the same position as Quaid, and has a bias toward seeing what it came to see. And the dream of an action movie isn’t going to look any different from an action movie. So we enter the infinite regress.


Mark of the Vampire (1935)


*. This is one of the most ridiculous movies ever made.
*. It’s a remake of London After Midnight, a silent (and now mostly lost) film also by Tod Browning, based on a story that he wrote. Apparently he quite liked the idea because he thought it worth doing again with sound.
*. As with Freaks, this one was cut to pieces by the studio. Kim Newman and Steve Jones on the DVD commentary talk about how uncomfortable MGM were with the horror genre. Reports are that Browning’s version had some twenty minutes taken out of it, leaving parts of the film mysterious (like the bloody wound on Count Mora’s temple).


*. But even without the cuts I doubt it would have made sense. The story goes that Browning kept the twist ending a secret even from the cast, and that they were not happy about it. Newman thinks this unlikely because they would have known the original story from London After Midnight, but I’m not so sure. Perhaps they thought they were doing something different? In any event, the ending here has the effect of rendering almost everything that has gone before absurd.
*. I guess the big question then is: How big a joke/mess was this intended to be, and how much of its absurdity was a result of the cuts? Put another way: is it pre- or post-modern?
*. For example, take the line by the Inspector near the end: “We all thought our vampire scheme was so simple!” This is usually met with hilarity by audiences, but was it intended to be funny? Or is it just a really dumb line that misfires?
*. Personally, I think the whole thing was meant to be a Dracula parody from the start, though MGM might not have been in on the joke. A lot of early American horror films refused to take themselves seriously. Think of The Cat and the Canary and the monster movies of James Whale. Newman thinks Whale might have influenced Browning in this respect, but I don’t think he had much to learn.


*. Car(r)ol(l) Borland as Luna is this movie’s Elsa Lanchester, giving her role a memorable, iconic look (Newman feels she may have been the inspiration for Charles Addams’s Morticia). However, unlike Lanchester, Borland had no further career. I don’t know how strange this is, as there’s no evidence here of her doing any acting. Like Lugosi, she’s really just a prop.
*. Is that Helen Chandler? No, actually it’s Elizabeth Allan. But I dare you to tell them apart from a distance. This may have been incidental, but it’s more likely Browning was trying to make the movie look as much like Dracula as possible.
*. Do you think there was a pun in the title, with the vampire story being used to dupe the killer, thus making him a “mark” of the vampire? Probably not, but it’s possible.
*. Given the odd concept, and its mangling, this remains one of the real curiosities of the 1930s horror boom. One struggles to think of any part of it that’s particularly well done, and yet despite all of its deficiencies, and studio mishandling, it makes a mark.


The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)


*. Hitichcock sometimes referred to this as his “first picture” and “the first real Hitchcock film.”
*. Why? Because it was his first foray into the genre of the suspense thriller that he would later do so much to define. And because so many of what would become staple Hitchcock themes were present: the innocent man on the run, the tease of sexuality (the “mannequins” in their underwear backstage, Joe handcuffing Daisy in a way Htich eagerly admitted was fetishistic), the police presented as useless and just stupid enough to be dangerous and threatening, and underneath it all the sense that we can’t trust a smooth exterior.
*. There are also reasons for not considering it his first picture. He referred to The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) in these same terms, and I think what he might have had in mind is the fact that The Lodger didn’t really launch his career as the “Master of Suspense.” After this film he would spin his wheels for years, churning out a lot of sub-grade filler for different British studios. Despite being a critical and commercial success, The Lodger was a temporary dead end.
*. Hitchcock doesn’t always get the credit he deserves for being a lifelong experimenter and innovator. This early film shows him throwing all kinds of stuff at the wall to see what sticks, right from the odd titles and the opening media montage introducing us to the Avenger.
*. And who is the Avenger? We never find out, or what it is he’s avenging. But at this same time Hitchcock was explaining to anyone who would listen that a film director had to market his personal brand to sell his movies to the public. Isn’t this what the Avenger is all about, with his triangle trademark and made-for-the-media moniker? And aren’t they both in the same business of scaring people? The Master and the MacGuffin.
*. Of course Hithcock’s experiments don’t always work. Here I think he sometimes gets more credit than is due. The business of the glass ceiling whereby the people below “see” the Lodger pacing his room above must, I think, have baffled contemporary audiences. Even nearly a hundred years later I find it disorienting. It seems a silly stunt to me, but it’s part of the same “try anything” approach to filmmaking.
*. Another example is the incredibly complex opening shot of the woman screaming, her head backlit in bright light. Again, does this work? I don’t think the extra halo effect adds very much relative to the effort expended in creating it, though I like it as a way of jolting the audience right off the mark.


*. In my notes on Fulci’s City of the Living Dead I wondered what the first film was to do this (that is, open with a woman screaming). I’m not sure if this was first, but it must be getting close.
*. I like the story structure, starting off by setting up the environment — London, fog, murder, headlines — before settling us into the domestic setting by way of that terrific zoom following the Lodger’s shadow as it approaches the door of Number 13.
*. How many angles does Hitchcock shoot the stairway from? Directly overhead, above, through the railings, from a low angle off to one side, straight on from the ground floor, in close up . . . he makes it seem such an active set.
*. The novel by Lowndes would be remade many times, feeding off its “is he or isn’t he?” ambiguity. I think Hitchcock would have preferred to maintain some of that ambiguity, but Ivor Novello was a big star and the studio wasn’t having any of it. He would run into the same problem when adapting Before the Fact into Suspicion.
*. This is another subtle reason why we might not think of this as the first true Hitchcock film. The opportunity is there, but it never digs into the way surface respectability and decorum can conceal all kinds of evil.
*. Novello would have been perfect for such a role. Patrick McGilligan: “With his boyish grin and brilliantined hair, it is tempting to see Novello as Hitchcock’s initial foray into ‘countercasting,’ or casting against type — the director’s first golden opportunity to exploit a familiar persona to play off audience expectations. Novello might become the first dashing Hitchcock killer.” But it was not to be.
*. Ivor Novello was also gay, something else he had in common with a number of Hitch’s leading men. In the 1944 remake of The Lodger the role would be played by Laird Cregar, also gay, though this time a note of ambiguous sexuality was permitted, perhaps because Cregar wasn’t as big a star, or perhaps because his character really was the killer.
*. Which may just be a way of saying that while Hitchcock was Hitchcock already, he couldn’t yet be Hitchcock. That role would be a while in developing.

The Purge (2013)


*. The opening newsreel and security cam footage of crime in the streets (which is apparently part of a “purge feed” package) recalls the similar use of such scenes of civil unrest in movies like 28 Days Later and the remake of Dawn of Dead. The year is 2022 and we know where we are. This is the controlled-burn anarchy of the zombie apocalypse.
*. Is that a stretch? I don’t think so. I see this movie as a direct descendant of the zombie meme. At the end of my commentary on Night of the Living Dead I made the point that Romero’s breakthrough in that film was to see the zombies as us. Even family members and neighbours were out for our blood.
*. In Rabid Cronenberg gave that idea a “scientific” spin by having a virus release the collective id. Something similar was done in films like The Crazies and 28 Days Later. Viral zombies were “natural” (i.e., not supernatural) zombies, but the outbreak of the virus was still an intervening event. As I said at the end of my discussion of Rabid, the next logical step in this progression was yet to come.
*. With The Purge we have that last step. The Purge is a general amnesty providing “a lawful outlet for American rage.” But that rage is not viral, nor the result of a toxic spill or a voodoo ceremony. Instead it is original sin. The zombies, or crazies, or homicidal freaks, aren’t sick or possessed. They’re just the people in your neighbourhood. The people next door, all of them, are psychopathic killers. Only a very thin layer of civilization holds them back from satisfying their blood lust. That was the point of Night of the Living Dead too, but here there’s no excuse or explanation given for it. It’s simply a given.
*. By the way, if you’re rolling your eyes at the suggestion that this is a zombie movie or has any relation to Romero, look again at the Purgers approaching the Santin home and think again.


*. I’ve often pointed out the connection between zombies and contemporary cultural bogeymen. They’ve been cast as the unemployed, the have nots, and terrorists. Here they seem to be a bunch of preppy kids getting their Manson on, or friends of the demented postmodern shits from Funny Games, but if you look at the movie from a distance, so it takes on a more mythic shape, then they’re the zombie version of the Occupy movement, breaking into a gated community and spreading some destruction around.
*. Politically this is having your cake and eating it, as it puts us in the uncomfortable position of having to feel some sympathy for a rather unlikeable and overall pretty useless family that’s representative of the 1%. For some reason they are all dressed in white. Why, if I were their neighbour I might indulge a bit of purging myself.


*. The gang of Purgers, meanwhile, is hard to figure out. Why do they wear masks? Especially given that their Polite Leader’s face looks the same anyway with it off, what with his plastic-elastic smile. And the whole business of blood lust as ritual duty seems self-contradictory to me in some way.
*. The threatened family is, of course, a horror staple, raising the question of how far you would go to protect wife and children (Wes Craven was particularly intrigued by this, and made it the basis of movies like The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes). Here, however, the question is made messier with Zoey and her boyfriend Henry. Why does she stick with him even after he tries to kill her father? There’s something weird going on there.
*. Weird, or sloppy. For what basically plays out like a teledrama on a single restricted set the script is surprisingly clunky. It makes no sense whatsoever, but the family keep getting separated. And I thought having one scene where a Purger takes too long to kill one of the family only to be gunned down by someone sneaking up on them from behind was enough. There was no need to repeat it three times.
*. I really don’t like that remote-controlled dead-baby cam. It’s such an obvious device, and yet has no dramatic function.
*. The idea of the Purge itself is an interesting premise, albeit one that only works as long as you don’t think about it too much. But the movie settles down very quickly into a dull and extremely predictable thriller that goes nowhere. The political muddle I mentioned earlier takes its toll. Just what is writer-director James DeMonaco’s target? The NRA? Privileged rich people? The American class structure? I honestly don’t know, which is very strange for a movie that feels so much like a morality play from the 1950s.
*. You see, here’s the problem: building on the analysis I began with, as I see it DeMonaco’s real target is human nature, or original sin. There may be some good people out there, but not many and anyway they’re outgunned. And yet since religion is off the table there is no answer for our innate depravity but to better arm ourselves. Get stronger doors, and buy some bigger guns. Which is just where Romero left us back in 1968.


World War Z (2013)


*. Oh my god what a stupid movie. There were all sorts of problems with re-writes, even while in production, because they were way over budget. But even so . . .
*. It’s based on the book by Max Brooks (Mel’s son), but doesn’t take much from that source except the title. So why did they reportedly pay a “high six-figure” sum for the rights if they weren’t even going to use it?
*. In fact, the book was basically unfilmable, being an episodic “oral history of the zombie war” that would have never worked on screen. Brooks was just mining all of the usual zombie apocalypse conventions, so the producers of this movie really didn’t need him at all.
*. Even the locations are underutilized, only carrying a symbolic or political significance (discussed below).
*. And why is Gerry (Brad Pitt) flying all over the world anyway? Why not just phone Jerusalem? Or let the people in Cardiff know what his great idea is?
*. Zombies are now so much a part of pop culture that these big-budget, CGI-heavy epics constitute their own genre: ZombieShit (a label that nicely complements MarvelCrap). Most of the conventions are still respected, like the delirious shopping expedition (though this looks a bit more like Black Friday at Wal-Mart than the usual raid for consumer goodies). Then some newer tropes, like opening with a montage of news reports (from 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake) are also included. There’s not much that’s original.
*. The politics here are downright ugly, if not hateful. Apparently the best place to be in case of a zombie outbreak is somewhere that is already a war zone or armed camp, like North Korea or Israel/Palestine. They’re the ones who know how to keep the rabble out (this is a theme of the book as well, where the benefits of apartheid are made explicit).


*. Why so extreme? Because the zombies/infected/lower classes are revolting. This is most blatantly put forward in the Jerusalem section. In case you were in any danger of missing the political message, a location stamp tells us this is “Jerusalem, Israel.” The city’s status is actually disputed, but not in Hollywood. Outside the walls of Jerusalem, meanwhile, are the infected hordes of Arabs, a lethal bacillus that has to be separated from the besieged Israeli community.
*. Like I said, the politics are ugly. Really ugly.
*. And the political message doesn’t end there. We start off with Gerry and his family stuck, in all places, in Newark, New Jersey. Specifically the housing projects. That’s not a good place for a pair of white, upper-class yuppies to be with their kids. There are Arabs, I mean coloured people, running around!
*. Hell, it’s getting so you can’t even fly any more! Note that the rebellion comes from the back of the plane, economy class, with the dirty hordes fighting their way into the business section. Damn their dirty hides!
*. There’s a lot of just plain stupid stuff in this movie, in part because the script re-writes led to incoherence but also . . . just because. Chief among the howlers is how that army of zombies just sneaks up the wall of Fortress Jerusalem in broad daylight without anyone noticing. There are helicopters watching them, right? And people on the wall? But no! They’re backs are turned!


*. And are human pyramids of that size even physically possible? They certainly suggest a high degree of group organization and athleticism that the zombies don’t seem to have.
*. Why are the zombies so sensitive to sound? How long can they remain “dormant” without eating anything? And apparently they aren’t cannibals so I’m not sure how they’re sustaining themselves.
*. Speaking of their dormant state, shouldn’t they be sitting down or sleeping? I don’t think of dormant creatures as standing up straight and twitching all over.
*. Wait. Pitt has been sent on this super-important mission and his only way of reporting back is to … call his wife and have her pass the phone off to his superior?
*. How does Wales survive the plague so well? It’s not an island, and the WHO building isn’t a fortress. It’s even partially overrun. Was anybody thinking about these things? Like how Gerry and Segel both survive that plane crash? Oh yeah, they had their seatbelts on.
*. What a waste of Mireille Enos. She literally has nothing to do but worry about her man. A clichéd cutaway as a suffering Madonna.
*. The whole “family man” angle is overdone. Gerry doesn’t want to go on this mission (which, remarkably, he is the only man in the world capable of leading) because he wants to stick with his family on the aircraft carrier? But what danger are they in there? And doesn’t he think that helping the scientific team find a cure is kind of, you know, important?
*. Pitt tells us that in his line of work in danger zones it’s the “people who move who survive.” “Life is motion,” he tries to explain in Spanish. But is this true? In general, I’m not so sure.
*. What’s that you say? You have to stay really, really quiet so as not to alert the zombies? Don’t forget to turn off your cellphone then! Oh no! Too late!
*. Really, how stupid would you have to be not to know that? Forget about being ex-special forces (or whatever Brad Pitt’s background is), all you have to have seen is a few movies like this.
*. The zombie genre in the twenty-first century has been a victim of its own success, going the way of parody (Shaun of the Dead, Fido, Juan of the Dead), low-budget extreme gore, or big-budget Hollywood treatments (this film, I Am Legend, 28 Weeks Later). What we haven’t been seeing is anything new or vital.
*. No I didn’t like this one at all. I couldn’t wait for it to end, especially when it stumbled into its final act (a structural flaw it shares with 28 Days Later, which was another hatchet job of a screenplay). It’s stupid, clichéd, and didn’t even have a lot of gore in it. I can’t think of anything new they did with the genre. Instead of being creative they just threw a ton of money on a 28 Days Later rip-off (a movie that wasn’t worth ripping off in the first place).
*. Nevertheless it did huge box office, becoming the highest grossing zombie movie of all time. Plans for a sequel were soon announced.


Rec 3 (2012)


*. The terror in Rec and Rec 2 was produced by the very limitations those two movies set themselves: their characters trapped in a dark old building full of narrow passageways and presented from the point of view of a very shaky “shaky cam.”
*. We’re in a different world here, though the story is tied together nicely as the events are presented as taking place simultaneously with the others so that it works as one of the synoptic Rec gospels.
*. Gone is the shaky cam that defined the first two movies, and I can’t say I miss it. Though they did come up with a perfect way to introduce it here and I think they could have made use of it effectively. I felt sorry to see Atún leave us just because he was too big to fit in the crawlspace. His dedication to a cinéma vérité style (going for just a touch of Renoir with his al fresco footage) was sorely missed.


*. Also gone is that haunted Barcelona tenement. Now we’re attending a wedding reception at a luxurious event destination, among a horde of beautiful young people. Terror will have to be produced in other (which in this case turns out to mean “more conventional”) ways.
*. It’s the end of the shaky cam that tells us how much has changed. And when does that happen? Twenty minutes in.
*. What is the record for the most screen time passing before the title comes on? Or the most screen time relative to the film’s length? The title here comes up at 21:47, and it absolutely blindsided me. I mean, at that point why even bother?
*. Another thing that’s new is the sense of humour and genre parody. This wasn’t at all present in the first two films, but it is something that tends to come with the territory when making horror sequels (think Evil Dead, Cabin Fever, etc.). In fact, I think this movie could have been even funnier if they’d let it go in that direction more.


*. For one thing, they seemed to introduce a bunch of characters that they then didn’t do much with later. In particular, I thought a lot more could have been done with the SpongeBob character. The comic possibilities there were endless.
*. Bridezilla and St. George. More could have been done with this as well. Clara transitions too violently from being a princess in need of rescuing to becoming a kick-ass chick pissed at how her big day has been ruined. But instead of being a strength, I thought the romantic elements in the story were overplayed, which shouldn’t have been possible.
*. At 80 minutes this movie isn’t long (the documentary on the making of the movie included with the DVD is nearly half an hour longer!) and it leaves a lot on the table. The deleted scenes show even more time given over to introducing the characters but that’s not what’s missing. What’s missing is something to do with them once all hell breaks loose.
*. I also thought the business of the reflections of the zombies showing them in their demonic state (in the form of the zombie leader Nina Medeiros) was a concept that more could have been done with. As it is, it’s only utilized a couple of times and not explained. And yes, I’m aware of the fact that I’ve said “more could have been done with this” several times now.
*. It’s too bad they cut some of the talk inside the chapel, as it explains the otherwise baffling coach scene Koldo watches on the security cam.
*. I don’t know why the priest quoting the Bible is so effective here when nothing the priest did worked worth a damn in Rec 2.
*. OK, Koldo couldn’t find anything in a kitchen that size that would function as a screwdriver? Like, I don’t know, perhaps a knife? That’s pathetic.


*. The same uncomfortable mix of material and spiritual causes for the virus as in the first two films. I can’t understand it. And the priest’s lame explanation of the “Genesis” story went way over my head. I think it was just so much religious twaddle they threw in the mix.
*. So does the Medeiros demon possess everybody who is infected, everywhere? Independently? That’s quite a demon. If she takes over the world she’s the puppet master for 7 billion people? And then what? What’s her goal? These are the questions you have to ask because zombification is not a virus but something directed by an evil intelligence. And there are no good answers.


*. Though I have nothing against getting rid of the shaky cam, it seems to me the second half of the movie really drags. I think this is a script problem though, and has little to do with the style of the filmmaking.
*. In the documentary Rec 3: Genesis: Preparing a Bloody Wedding director Paco Plaza talks about discovering the tunnel location and changing the script to work it in. What did he like about it? “We thought it was perfect because it was like a new screen in a videogame. It’s like when you change levels.” I think a comment like that gives some insight into where a whole generation of directors’ heads are at.
*. Also like a videogame, the final gunning down of Clara and Koldo was done completely with CGI. No squibs! I felt like this marked some kind of watershed. We are in a videogame world now.
*. It’s well done, but . . . I can’t help thinking that the Rec franchise backstory pulls it down. It probably would have been better as a stand-alone zombie or virus-outbreak movie instead of being a sequel to a pair of very different movies that it drags behind it like . . . the tin cans tied to a newlywed couple’s car.


Juan of the Dead (2011)


*. The opening scene strikes the perfect note. Juan and Lazaro don’t want to flee to the U.S. because then they’d have to work. They prefer to be slackers. They’re not too good at making plans for the future unless they really have to. But that’s coming, sooner than they’d like.
*. But middle-aged slackers? Well, this is Cuba. Do you see anyone working? At least Shaun in Shaun of the Dead had a job, albeit a dead-end one. Juan and Lazaro are . . . what? Fishermen? Petty criminals? I wonder if they even pay rent to live on that roof.
*. The director Alejandro Brugués commenting on his inspiration for the film: “I was walking through Havana one day and looked at the expressions on people’s faces. Zombies. They didn’t even need make-up.”




*. This is a now commonplace observation, and was sent up wonderfully in Shaun of the Dead. The zombies are us. Here it’s not clear to anyone if things have changed. Zombie Grandma still looks the same. Public transport is as unsafe as ever. You get the picture.


*. Was Angola Cuba’s Vietnam? I never thought of it that way, but here you get that impression.
*. Father Jones is sort of forced into the mix to play deux ex machina, awkwardly explained in a scene of dialogue where everything is lost in translation anyway, and then abruptly dispatched. His character seems kind of pointless.


*. What is the film’s attitude toward capitalism? Lazaro kills the guy who owes him money, then he and his son California leave the disabled man to the zombies so they can steal his wheelchair. Is this a socialist paradise, or a cutthroat world of dog-eat-dog, where you make money from the suffering of others?


*. What is the film’s attitude toward homosexuality? Just grist for gay jokes? There seem to be a lot of them.
*. Juan asks Lazaro how he’s feeling and Lazaro responds “Just as when I came into the world: shitted and wet.” Is this a common expression in Spanish? Are the subtitles accurate? I don’t know.


*. It’s a movie that’s full of in-jokes, which is what you’d expect from a self-referential genre comedy. They even have some fun with the debate over whether zombies should move fast or slow, finally splitting them into turtles and hares.
*. But you can’t do a genre comedy that is just in-jokes. This is where I think Juan of the Dead falls down. It doesn’t have an interesting or original story, and in fact the plot barely holds together. It looks pretty good for such an inexpensive film, and I like the cast, but it’s really not very funny for a comedy, or suspenseful for a horror film. You know a genre is getting played out when even the parodies are getting tired.


Exit Humanity (2011)


*. The return of the living dead. Returning, this time, to the nineteenth century. Because if there’s one thing the twenty-first century hasn’t been able to get its fill of, it’s zombies. But they’re getting harder to make new.
*. The hook here is that the story takes place in Tennessee just after the American Civil War. Apparently there was a zombie outbreak during the war, though it’s not clear how that all worked out. It does seem as though the post-War world is a radically depopulated place, except for the zombies stumbling and moaning through the woods.
*. For some reason, Ontario’s ski country (the area around Collingwood) has recently become associated with tales of grisly horror. I guess the person to blame is Tony Burgess. The same location is also the location of Burgess’s zombie novel Pontypool Changes Everything, which was later filmed as Pontypool, and which also starred Stephen McHattie. (Burgess appears in cameos in both movies as well. You can see him here as one of the zombies McHattie is experimenting on.)


*. I think one reason for this adoption may be the stark loneliness of much of the area. It lends itself to the feel of Ontario Gothic. Yes, it’s also some very valuable real estate, but the communities in the area are small, and relatively remote from one another, with lots of bush in between. It’s easy to feel that you’re the last man on Earth when you’re up there. Whenever I drive through it I get the feeling there must be a serial killer in the basement of every farmhouse.
*. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t look pretty. Maybe too pretty. There’s some really smooth camera movement throughout this film, and the whole is nicely photographed by Brendan Uegama (especially all the torch and candlelight scenes). Though I think he’s sometimes a little too fond of the fall scenery.


*. Also nice are the inventive animated interludes. And the bit where the gang members are introduced by way of old-tyme studio photographs is a nice little touch too.
*. All of which is to say that they do a great job with what they had to work with. Which wasn’t much. And it is a high-concept film: a period gore-fest complete with battle scene. As noted on the producers’ commentary, such a script would have “needed an enormous budget to have pulled it off” at industry standards.
*. It’s curious then that what lets it down is the script. Not because the script misfires badly, but because it slows things down. The goal was to produce “a patient dramatic story,” depressing even, without any glamour or sense of urgency. This was a bold decision, especially given the target audience for zombie fare. Success on these terms could only be the film’s undoing.
*. In other words, in trying to do something different I think perhaps they ended up being too different. Or perhaps “contrary” is the word I’m thinking of.


*. Take the matter of the zombies. The zombies (at least the featured zombies) look great, but they’re not much of a threat. In fact it’s surprising how little anyone seems concerned by them.
*. This is a point I made in my notes on Romero’s Survival of the Dead, and seems to mark a generational shift. I thought it odd that Edward’s first encounter with the undead (he repeatedly shoots a zombie union soldier in the opening battle scene) didn’t seem to register with him as any great shock. When we next see him (six years later) it’s after the outbreak and zombies are more or less taken for granted. A back story is later filled in by way of animation, but by then it’s hard to feel that interested.
*. The problem of making the zombies just background or set dressing is that you need a really compelling human story in the foreground to make the movie work. That doesn’t happen here, though not for lack of trying. In fact, this movie has too much story to get through, and it’s all very familiar territory. The man who has lost his wife and child and is trying to reconnect with humanity goes back to Vincent Prize in The Last Man on Earth, except Edward Young has a beard and he tosses his head back and howls a lot.
*. In conclusion, this a surprisingly, and I think daringly, ambitious movie, and it succeeds more than you’d expect given its tiny budget. The slow pace hurts though, and the lack of a more original story to match the inventiveness of the concept lets it down.


The Crazies (2010)

The Crazies

*. Not bad, but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It’s a slicker production than the original, but leaves some important elements out and becomes more and more conventional as it rumbles along. Not only that, but the basic premise seems even less credible than it did forty years ago.
*. As I’ve said many times before, if you’re not going to reimagine or reinvent a film in some significant way, then there’s no point remaking it.
*. It’s too bad that the idea that you can’t tell who has the virus and who doesn’t, which Romero wanted to develop more but didn’t, gets no play here. Instead, the crazies are easily identified by their progressively more grotesque makeup.
*. It moves along at a good pace. Which is to say, quickly. This is mainly because it doesn’t have to explain what’s going on. After all, even if you haven’t seen the earlier version, you know the drill by now. We’re in zombie apocalypse country, right down to a trip to the morgue.
*. The morgue scene is one of a series of set pieces the film is built around. The circular blade chasing after Timothy Olyphant’s cock is good. But this is one of the very few bits of business that is effective.
*. Sticking with the morgue for just a bit, whatever happens to the guy whose lips and eyelids were sewn together? He was still alive, but there’s no mention of him after they kill the crazy doctor. Did they rescue him or just leave him there?
*. The car wash scene strikes me as one of those ideas that someone thought would be interesting, but which really doesn’t make any sense at all. Why would there be a car wash out in the middle of nowhere? Why would the crazies be hanging out in a car wash in the middle of nowhere waiting to ambush someone when there are no cars left on the road? And why are our heroes so badly prepared to deal with the situation even after it’s clear that they have been ambushed?
*. Is this supposed to be Iowa? Why do the lake scenes look like a Louisiana bayou? I guess because part of the film was shot in Georgia.
*. Sigh. Even when the power gets shut down and all the lights go off, one light has to stay on, albeit flickering. Damn that cliché.
*. Given that the government has the whole area under satellite surveillance, with helicopters flying all over it, how the hell do our heroes manage to just wander through open fields and empty highways most of the movie without being noticed?
*. If the authorities wanted to stop anyone from driving away, wouldn’t it have been easier to just blow all the vehicles up instead of booting every single one?
*. Nothing against Radha Mitchell, but Judy is a very poorly written part. I didn’t understand the constant bickering. Not to mention all the idiot-plot stuff and sudden scares. Look out, someone’s behind you! Damn that cliché.

Survival of the Dead (2009)


*. A much maligned film that disappointed critics and tanked at the box office. Did it deserve better?
*. You have to give Romero a lot of credit for one thing: he could have just kept re-making the same zombie movie over and over, following a formula, but he never took this route. Each of his zombie films has gone in a different direction and tried something new. No, it hasn’t always worked. But you still have to appreciate the attempt.
*. As I see it, he gets into trouble here for two reasons. First there is the absence of any sympathetic leads. The National Guard troop we met in Diary of the Dead, and in particular their leader “Sarge” Crocket, were very repellent figures, and they’re barely redeemed here. Both the O’Flynns and the Muldoons seem like narrow-minded rednecks with Irish accents (seeing as they are the only two families on the island we may suspect some issues relating to inbreeding among small population groups). The slacker kid played by Devon Bostick is an immediate pain in the ass and Jane/Janet is/are unbelievable. Who is there to like?
*. Romero considered this moral ambiguity to be a strength, seeing it (perhaps correctly) as being a more realistic presentation of character. But we’re not in a real world, and the people we meet are weirdos by any standard anyway. For example, What is Seamus Muldoon’s motivation? Is he doing God’s work? And why is Tomboy introduced as a sexed-up lesbian and then nothing made of it? Why bother?
*. The second problem I have is that Romero has clearly lost interest in his zombies. Much as in the Walking Dead television series (based on Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels), the zombies here are just furniture, a backdrop to play the human story against. They aren’t even particularly scary. In the movie’s first lines Sarge informs us that “we should have been afraid of them but we weren’t” because “they were easy enough to kill.” They’re no threat to the living unless being used as a weapon by one of the clans.


*. For some reason Romero is still sticking with the perverse idea that money, and in particular stacks of paper money, will mean something in the post-apocalyptic world. I don’t know why he has such a blind spot here. It made no sense at all in Land of the Dead and makes even less here.
*. Look, historically there have been many times when paper money has depreciated to the point where it has no value at all. Think Confederate dollars, the hyperinflated currency of Weimar Germany, or more recently what happened in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Money can become worthless. One would expect it to be worthless in a world as gone to hell as Romero describes. And yet he insists it has some significance.
*. It is a point that’s raised on the DVD commentary, but Romero offers no explanation for it. He does say that in Land of the Dead it was meant to signify that the Republicans were back in power and money was making a comeback, at least in the isolated world of Fiddler’s Green. But nothing is said of its value in this film. It seems he just needs a big pile of cash to operate as a kind of plot driver.
*. Another thing I can’t understand is the point of the Irish accents. Romero wasn’t using native Irish actors, so why bother? The general inspiration for the film was William Wyler’s The Big Country (1958), but why would wanting to do a zombie Western lead you to have a pair of Irish families feuding?


*. Much of the effects are now CGI, and not very good CGI at that. The collection of heads on stakes, for example, or the zombie with the burning head, don’t look convincing at all. And all three of the spectacular kill scenes are cartoonishly unrealistic. A rifle won’t disintegrate an entire head, leaving a scalp behind. Pumping a head full of fire extinguisher foam won’t cause it to explode. Shooting someone in the chest with a flare gun won’t make their head burst into flames.
*. Is Janet the only (living) woman left on Plum Island? There appear to be no female Flynns or Muldoons (unless I’ve missed something, the only other woman we see is the  mother shot at the beginning).
*. In Land of the Dead we see the zombies walking underneath a river, so I really shouldn’t have been surprised to find out that they can just stand on the bottom of the ocean forever waiting for someone to swim by. But I was. I guess I always thought they were somehow still breathing.
*. Most of the problems can be marked down to the fact that the movie was a rush job, made very quickly (and very cheaply) to capitalize on the success (relative to its budget) of Diary of the Dead. As a result, Romero really didn’t have a concept in hand to develop (as he did with consumerism, economic inequality, and media overload in earlier films). Since Romero is professedly all about the concept, this sort of hamstrung the project to begin with, forcing him to fall back on other conventions (the Western, most obviously). Indeed in the Walking After Midnight documentary Romero expresses his frustration openly, feeling that he wasn’t getting everything he wanted done.
*. Does the title mean anything? If so, I’m not sure what. They didn’t even have a working title during filming, shooting it under the aegis ? of the Dead. According to the Walking After Midnight documentary no one knows where the title Survival of the Dead came from or who suggested it.
*. Day of the Dead was poorly received too. Might this movie be rediscovered at some point in the future? I doubt it, but anything is possible. The structure of the story isn’t bad, but there are too many things that don’t work, and the theme of conflict is too vague to add up to much. It took a long time, but I can’t help feeling Romero finally outgrew his zombies.